Look Left in Anger

From her home in Barcelona, journalist Pilar Rahola fights a never-ending battle for Israel's good name. Not because she is completely uncritical of Israel, but because she's convinced her leftist comrades harbor a pathological hatred of the Jewish state.

Roi Bet Levi
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Roi Bet Levi

She takes a phone call in her car late in the evening, on the way home from the radio station. From the mobile war room she is conducting two campaigns: On the one hand, she is fighting the busy midweek traffic in gridlocked Barcelona and, on the other, she is doing her best to continue to defend the good name of the State of Israel - a no-less-challenging task than dealing with the traffic problems in her hometown.

Pilar Rahola, a Spanish-Catalan journalist and politician, is one of the most passionate and important commentators in the public discourse of the Spanish-speaking world about the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. She writes three articles a week in the left-wing Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia (Catalan is the language of the autonomous region of Catalonia in northeast Spain, whose capital is Barcelona), publishes articles in leading newspapers in Argentina and Chile, and participates in countless TV and radio programs in both Spanish and Catalan. She also writes a blog on her Web site (www.pilarrahola.com). In addition, she has had the very dubious honor of having a puppet designed in her image in the Catalan version of the satirical British TV show "Spitting Image."

One-sided reports

About 500 million Spanish speakers are exposed almost daily to biased and one-sided reports about the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, and to harsh, venomous, targeted and tendentious criticism of Israel's activities in Gaza and the West Bank. Only very few public figures and journalists paint the picture in a somewhat more balanced manner. As opposed to many of them, Rahola does not do so for religious reasons: She is not Jewish, and defines herself as a loyal member of the left and as a lapsed Catholic. Therefore she is also free of the right-wing, messianic fervor of which many of Israel's Christian supporters in the world are immediately suspected - even in the eyes of Israelis themselves.

Rahola, who turns 50 this week, has visited Israel dozens of times, has written hundreds of articles and essays in condemnation of Islamic terror and of the pathological anti-Israel stance - with its strong undertone of anti-Semitism - of the European left, and has been interviewed or has acted as moderator of thousands of TV broadcasts on political subjects. Nevertheless, this exclusive interview with Haaretz is one of the first times in which this interesting and impressive woman is being exposed to the general Israeli public.

"Apparently after so many years of being under attack, the Israelis are simply not used to being defended," explains Rahola, who has received many awards from Jewish organizations in South America, the United States (AIPAC) and Europe (B'nai B'rith of France), as well as from Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "They are far more interested in outsiders who criticize them than in those who defend them, but it really makes no difference to me. I don't do what I do in order to be popular in Spain or in Israel, but in order to defend what I believe in."

What leads a "nice Catalan girl" to devote a substantial part of her career, and in effect her life, to defending a foreign and distant land?

Rahola: "There is a biographical explanation. I come from a family that suffered quite a lot because of its political views, like many other families in Spain. My grandfather's brother was the first person to be sentenced to death in Franco's regime. It was a family that was loyal to the Spanish Republic, which believed in the right of the Catalans to an independent state. Other family members served in the Spanish Parliament and were active in local politics in Barcelona, always on the left side of the map. I grew up in a home where I was taught to oppose fascism. The most blatant example of the horrors that can be perpetrated in the name of this ideology has always been the Holocaust of the Jewish people. In Spain they didn't speak about the Holocaust, but in my home, in the family dining room, it existed.

"I learned to speak my mother tongue, Catalan, in a totalitarian country that forbade us to speak it, I learned to love freedom under the dictatorship, I learned about the greatest tragedies brought about by fascism in a country that did everything possible to conceal them, and I had the privilege of knowing and loving the Jews without meeting even a single one of them personally. This tension between my beliefs and the environment in which I live continues to accompany me as an adult. I fight against the oppression of women in macho Spain, I do everything I can to arouse Europe's memory when it tries to repress it, and I insist on telling the truth in a society that is afraid of the truth."

Rahola's choice of words is not random. With a doctorate in Spanish and Catalan philology, she is aware of the power of language and of the ability that media rhetoric has to shape public opinion. "I don't see myself as a defender of Israel," she points out, "but as a defender of the truth. I have a great deal of criticism of various decisions of the Israeli government. I don't like what Israel has done over the years. But there's a very big difference between rational criticism of the government, of various activities of the government, and unbridled and criminal attacks against Israel's very essence."

'No choice'

Rahola had already begun to write about Israel when she was in her 20s, a short time after her first visit to the country. Afterward, to some extent, she abandoned her journalistic work (which also included coverage of the first Gulf War from Jerusalem) in favor of running a Catalan publishing house and writing books (both political works about women's rights, Catalan nationalism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and more personal books about her experiences as a mother of two adopted children , for example), and later in favor of a short-lived, but action-packed political career, as deputy mayor of Barcelona and as the only representative in the Spanish parliament of the left-wing party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya. Her return to center stage in the public discourse in Spain and Latin America about the situation in Israel came after the violent events in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002.

"The Spanish media were exploding with anger and hatred for Israel. The newspaper headlines here spoke of genocide, ethnic cleansing and total destruction of Palestinian society. For anyone really familiar with the situation in Israel, there was no choice but to come out and choose sides. I was not only pro-Israel, but against the media manipulation, against the simplistic presentation of 'good guys and bad guys,' and mainly against the nihilism of Islamic terror.

"I believe in the right of the Palestinians to an independent state, but I believe that the best way to defend this right is to condemn terror, the worship of death and destruction, and the pathological hatred of Israel as a state and as an entity. In the Spanish and South American media one can find only victims - the Palestinians, of course - and hangmen, the Israelis, who else? I, as a journalist and a member of the left, must fight against this lie."

Your friends on the Spanish left will say that they are the ones who are really fighting for the truth.

"The left has always spoken about the fact that its main task is to improve people's lives. But many leftists have created a grotesque and monstrous version of this worldview. The dictatorship of the left is the twin of the dictatorship of the right. I have always been concerned about fascism, but I am just as concerned about the dogmatic thinking of the left, which rejects independent thought and public debate, and replaces ideas with slogans.

"In the conflict in the Middle East - which is not limited, as many in Europe would like to think, to Israel and Palestine alone, but is related to the situation in Syria and Iran - most European intellectuals stop thinking and only repeat empty cliches. This anti-Israel bias of both the left and the media is a disguise for anti-Semitism. No other country is the target of such hatred and of such belligerent criticism. No other country receives repeated threats to its existence from other members of the United Nations, while the world remains silent. The reasons for that can be found in both distant and recent history.

"Classical, cultural anti-Semitism has ostensibly been rejected by the left in Spain, but unfortunately it flows in our DNA, even though there are almost no Jews in Spain. We drank and ate anti-Semitism during our religious ceremonies, in the religious schools where we studied, in our folklore. My father used to tell me that as a boy, he would run around with a toy pistol and 'hunt' Jews, and that my grandmother used to say about women she hated that they were 'uglier than a rabbi,' although she didn't even know what a rabbi was. We must not think that we aren't influenced by this anti-Semitism and that we have put it all behind us.

"Nevertheless, this anti-Semitism doesn't really worry me. What worries me is that in the name of solidarity, justice and the search for freedom, the European left has justified the anti- Israelism of the Stalinist left for many years. That's what shaped the path of the left in Spain, for example. It saw Israel as an enemy, an invader, the right hand of the Great Satan - the U.S. The intellectuals who are now attacking Israel from the left grew up on this type of thinking.

"The left betrays its principles. It is not fighting against the major dictatorships, it is not fighting for the rights of the genuinely oppressed. It is obsessive in its criticism of the U.S. and Israel, and while it is preoccupied with them, it has neglected hundreds of thousands of dead in Darfur, for example. That is the major and genuine disgrace of the left, not the situation in Israel.

"To all that we must of course add the Spaniards' sense of guilt about what happened to the Jews during the Spanish Expulsion, and mainly during World War II. And our deviant way of dealing with that is to attack Israel, of all countries. Because the worse Israel is, the less guilty we are. The attacks against Israel are our way of clearing our conscience, and that's something I definitely can't accept."

Favoring the 'weak'

In Barcelona, your hometown, there were many demonstrations in which Catalan youths, wearing kaffiyehs, took to the streets and shouted extremist slogans against Israel and the U.S., two stable democracies. I didn't see any demonstrations against the dictatorship in Syria or against Iran's treatment of homosexuals. These young people were not Stalinists, so why are they taking to the streets?

"In the universities of Barcelona there is undoubtedly a very harsh anti-Israel discourse. Recently the Spanish Ministry of Education published a survey on the subject of immigration, in which high-school students were asked which minority is the most hated and threatening. Most of the students chose the Jews, without ever having met a single Jew in their lives.

"In the past, Catalans identified with Israel because it was an example of a persecuted nation that had succeeded in establishing a state after many years, but today young people are choosing the 'weaker' side. The question is why they don't think that dozens of people killed in an attack on a bus are victims, and why they think that the terrorist from Islamic Jihad who blew himself up is a hero. After all, if we were talking about a terrorist from ETA, from the Basque region, they would condemn him. The answer to that lies in the anti-Semitism they imbibed in childhood, in their anti-American professors at the university, and in the media that poison them against Israel. There is no question that this attitude is now very fashionable in Spain.

If it's a matter of fashion, is it possible that hatred of Israel will also go out of fashion?

"That's what we're trying to do, that's what we're fighting for. Meanwhile, unfortunately, anyone who is not anti-Israel immediately becomes suspect. I have often been asked how I can be a member of the left and support Israel. My answer is always the same: How can someone be a member of the left and not condemn terror sharply and openly? How can anyone think that liberation underlies extreme Islamist ideology? How is it possible to remain silent in light of the grave situation of women's rights in Arab countries? How can it be that the entire Arab world is living under one dictatorship or another? How is it possible to call all that a leftist worldview?"

Has your aligning yourself with Israel removed you from the camp of the Spanish left to which you once belonged? Have you felt excluded, perhaps even threatened?

"Independent thinking is lonely and hostile territory. When someone goes his own way and is not swept up in the mainstream, he is more exposed to dangers. I receive threats to my life, I'm slandered and I'm always under suspicion. I've lost close friends because of my opinions - but only those opinions about Israel. In the past I sharply criticized Spanish society for its discriminatory attitude toward women, for the terrible bullfights, an almost sacred issue in Spain, and for various economic and social issues, and no friend ever turned his back on me for that reason. But when it came to the Israeli issue, I paid a price for it."

Did it harm your political or journalistic careers?

"I really can't complain about being shortchanged. I have a large number of readers, who identify with me or oppose me, but always want to read more of my articles. In fact, when I abandon the subject of Israel for a while, there will always be someone who will beg me to write about it again. My viewpoint has placed me in a very central place in the Spanish media. I believe that that is proof of the fact that if someone believes in what he says and backs his words with facts and with logical arguments, he will always find someone to listen to him and someone to agree with him."

Today, when you see women with senior roles in politics, like Carme Chacon, the Spanish defense minister, Rachida Dati, the French justice minister, or Tzipi Livni, who is trying to form a government in Israel, do you miss politics?

"There's something very encouraging about that. Tzipi Livni can bring a great deal of hope for a positive change in Israel with her to the job of prime minister, but if she doesn't do her job successfully, I won't forgive her just because she's a woman. Personally speaking, I'm not considering a return to the political arena. In my opinion this is not the time for politicians. It's the time for journalists and intellectuals. It's true that there is now a crisis in the area of independent thinking; instead of discussions, there is shouting, but for just that reason, we are in need of spokespeople for independent thinking, and I believe that that is something that I'm good at, and that I have to continue to do. I'm not considering giving up writing, speaking, and if necessary even shouting my truth."



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